the Road with the Lil' Grease Beast
Reviewed by Kimberley McCoy
Standing outside Terminal C of the Washington National Airport, I search for a shuttle bus.
|Becky Johnson in front of the Veggie Bus, teaching children about clean, renewable forms of energy. Photo:Kimberley McCoy.|
Dozens pass me by. But I am not looking for just any shuttle bus.
I'm after the grandest of any shuttle bus I've ever met: The Lil' Grease Beast.
This distinguished motorized vehicle is now home to (sometimes) Syracuse resident,
Becky Johnson. Becky, a Syracuse University 2003 graduate, purchased the bus
in a New Hampshire auction in August of 2004 with the intent to transform the
diesel-powered engine to one powered by used vegetable oil. Becky now drives
on free fuel, liberated from the grease dumpsters of America. Since May she
has toured the country, promoting sustainable solutions to the world's environmental
issues, concentrating on clean, renewable forms of energy. Her bus acts as an
example and inspiration of just one solution people can explore.The hand-painted
bus of blue, green, purple and yellow adorned with the words "Veggie Powered
Bus" pulls up to me and the side door flops open. I board "The Beast."
I will spend the next week traveling with what Becky calls "The Clear Visions
Project." Amongst the clutter of pirate flags, a Canadian bobble head moose,
a trash bin full of composting worms and her tourmate/boyfriend, Dylan, I climb
upon the crudely-constructed loft bed that takes the place of what once were
seats. The interior of the bus is cleverly packed, maximizing storage space
through a creative arrangement of shelving units, which hold the supplies necessary
for three months on the road. Over the next week we will drive through Virginia
and into North Carolina, where we have a number of tour stops already lined
up. Becky was inspired to start this project after reflecting on her experiences
as an anti-corporate globalization and anti-war activist. Becky often tells
the story of a humbling experience at Syracuse University during an anti-war
protest. As a group of students chanted "No blood for oil" to a seemingly
apathetic student passing by, he replied, "I don't even have a car, do
you?" While Becky may not have been driving around town in a new SUV from
Sam Dell Nissan, she realized he had a point. She and her friends did own cars.
They were and are part of the car culture of America. Looking back at the past
few years, most of her car traveling had been to protests. She was driving eight
hours to Washington, DC to protest America's dependency on oil. Realizing the
responsibility of activists to create alternatives to the systems they oppose,
Becky set out to create the Lil' Grease Beast.
It's my first night on the tour and we are in need of grease. With a 100-gallon tank in the back of the bus, Becky and Dylan don't fill up often. Becky prefers grease from Asian eateries because it is low in thick congealed grease and garbage like half-eaten French fries and cigarette butts. A fine grease should flow like and have the color of maple syrup, she says. We find a Chinese Restaurant in a Virginia strip mall that could have been mistaken for being on Erie Blvd. in Syracuse. The owners are more than willing to let us tap their dumpster since they have to pay someone to haul the grease away.
By the glow of buzzing parking lot lights we transfer the grease into the tank. Clad in rubber gloves and a rain slicker, Becky scoops the grease from the dumpster into a plastic pitcher and hands it to Dylan, who pours it into the tank. The tank is divided into two sections, a filtered half and an unfiltered half. This set-up allows Becky and Dylan to store grease to be filtered on the road as needed. After filling up the unfiltered half, we leave the bus running to warm up the grease. Heat from the engine is passed through coolant lines to a tray of coolant that sits below the tank. The grease is heated to 180 degrees, the temperature required for it to have the same viscosity as diesel fuel, which allows it to run through the engine. Next we filter enough grease into the other half to get us back on the road. With a 12-volt pump, we pump the grease through a felt filter bag. The whole process from dumpster to filtered grease takes a few hours of intense work. By the end we are tired and a bit slippery.
Over the next week we make a dozen presentations, some to activist bookshops and food coops, but most to school age children. We visit an elementary school, a private K-12 school, a parks and recreation department after-school program, and a Boys and Girls Club. Becky has designed a program that teaches youth about the bus and how it works, but also teaches about the larger issue of consumption in our culture. An interactive skit uses the examples of food and toys to show the ways in which resources are spent on transportation. Youth are asked to question their consumption and think of creative alternatives such as buying locally produced or used products, or grow ing food or making toys themselves.
|The Lil Grease Beast. Photo:Kimberley McCoy|
Youth are excited to see the bus but often saddened by Becky's
poor judgment not to deck it out with 20-inch rims and televisions. The promise
of a vehicle that smells like fried food also peaks their interest.
Becky and Dylan finished the tour in mid-July. Looking back they have mixed feelings. Seeing the nation, meeting friends and living on a shoestring budget was quite an adventure, but their excitement about the bus as a sustainable solution is waning. The bus ran into a lot of mechanical troubles, forcing them to drive on diesel fuel rather than veggie grease more than they liked. The problems they experienced were shared by every other grease vehicle they met. They learned that grease in dumpsters is often not wasted but rather recycled into dog food or cosmetic products. Also, there is not enough grease in the world for all our cars to run. Even if we grew crops to produce vegetable oil on every bit of fertile land in the US, there still wouldn't be enough.
What we really need to do is curb our consumption. After a trip across the country and back again, Becky's advice to us all is to get on a city bus or better yet, get on your bike and pedal.
Kimberley traveled for a week with the Clear Visions project this past May. She resides at the Bread and Roses Collective House and can be reached at Kimberley@riseup.net.
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